A Dublin girl finds her place on Inis Meáin

After winning a scholarship to spend transition year in the Gaeltacht, Joy Flaherty loved island life so much that she’s staying for Leaving Cert. Here she recounts a week in her life


I’m 16 years old and in sixth year at Coláiste Naomh Eoin, on Inis Meáin, in the Aran Islands. I started school here the September after my Junior Cert and went straight into fifth year. Before coming here I went to John Scottus School, a fee-paying school in Donnybrook, Dublin. I really liked it, and I only ever planned to leave it temporarily, for transition year, to improve my Irish.

It didn’t work out like that, and island life grew on me. The year on the island was so worthwhile academically that it served as my fifth year, a common occurrence among students who come to Inis Meáin for transition year. I didn’t have to think twice about coming back for sixth year.

When the idea of coming to Inis Meáin was suggested to me first, I was sceptical. To spend an entire school year away from home – and not just away from home but on a small Irish-speaking island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean? No thanks. But I thought about it a lot and talked it over with my friends and family. I have two older brothers, David and Eoin, who are in college and who I miss a good bit when I’m away. Both of my parents thought moving here was a great idea and completely supported it, although my mam gets a bit sick of being the only girl in the house.

Irish had always been one of my favourite subjects, but the idea of being almost completely independent of my parents for a whole year was probably what tipped it for me in the end. The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht run a scholarship scheme, so I completed the application form, did the interview and was offered an accommodation scholarship.

My adventure started there and then. This island has attracted great scholars, including John Millington Synge, William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory and Patrick Pearse. They were influenced by island life and folklore, as well as learning Irish. That set the bar for my ambitions.

I was woken up on Tuesday morning by one of my room-mates getting up early for Irish traditional-music lessons. I really relish these leisurely mornings, because last year my Tuesday mornings started with a chemistry class before school, an option offered to those who take it as an extra subject. I took up construction studies for the first time in fifth year, as it wasn’t offered in my last school.

Coláiste Naomh Eoin has only 28 pupils, with just eight in the senior cycle, and the small size of the school really comes in handy.

In the first week of term the entire school went on a bonding day trip to Galway. We went kayaking on Lough Corrib, using NUIG’s facilities, and then to a big sports centre called Pure Skill. It really helped to break the ice with the new students. By the time we got back to school we were all a lot more comfortable with one another. In such a small school, one person can affect the entire dynamic.

Going to school here is completely different from Dublin. You always feel so safe here. The idea of having an alarm on your house or even locking your front door would be laughable – completely different from having to watch your handbag as you walk around Dublin city. I found it a bit difficult to settle in at first. Not that I was homesick, as such: more that I have always lived in the city. You can jump on a bus into town after school or stay the night at your friend’s house. I’m too busy for that here.

After evening study on Wednesday we have a short break for dinner, followed by drama class. We’re working towards a staged performance of a Christmas play for parents and the community.

After a week or so I realised that living in a house with a girl your own age, with every need provided for, meals on the table after school and not even being asked to lift a hand to set the table, was so much better than living at home with your parents. I had pretty much moved out at the age of 15.

Being away so much obviously had an effect on my friendships at home, and I grew apart from a good few of my friends in Dublin. However, I stayed in touch with my closest friends, who are only a phone call, a Skype or a Facebook message away. The junior-cycle students use netbooks, and the school has access to 100MBPS broadband.

Thursdays are my favourite day at Coláiste Naomh Eoin. Our higher-level maths and biology teacher, Cormac Coyne, is shared between schools on Inis Meáin and Inis Oirr, so Tuesday’s and today’s timetable is filled with maths and biology. The afternoon ends with an art class.

The students here do well in national competitions and received national recognition in last year’s Junk Kouture final with a seaweed dress designed and made by my friends Nóra and Hannah, sisters originally from Co Clare who moved to Inis Meáin with their family.
Irish has always been my favourite subject, and I was one of the best in my class at John Scottus. So I was under the impression that I was going in with a distinct advantage. How wrong was I? I was disappointed and alarmed that my command of the language was weak compared with that of the locals and the other pupils who, like me, came to study. The islanders speak Irish among themselves with a raw haste that takes a trained ear from living among them to understand. They are aware of this and tend to slow down initially, so that learners become accustomed to it.

My principal and múinteoir Gaeilge, Mairéad Ní Fhátharta, is an islander whose passion is the island, its heritage and the Irish language and education. I am now very confident when speaking Irish, as total immersion has left me fluent after a year. This year’s classes are focusing on the oral exam that constitutes 40 per cent of the overall mark for higher-level Leaving Certificate Irish. We have already almost completed the prescribed course with such vigour and detail that there’s lots of time for exam techniques, almost like at a grind school.

Mairéad has a master’s degree in language-teaching methodology and is an experienced examiner with the State Examinations Commission. Her relationship with us students is very much on an equal level.

I go home to Dublin every second weekend on the ferry and then on a bus from Galway. The weekends I spend on the island tend to be quiet enough, which suits me fine, as it leaves me with ample time to study.

Saturdays consist of afternoon study and evening entertainment, and on Sunday there’s time to explore the island after optional Mass with my bean an tí. Students sometimes go rock fishing, swimming and cliffwalking at weekends with an adult from their host family. There is a great social life, which I experienced last year when I was allowed to go to a themed céilí in the Teach Ósta – chaperoned, of course – after our annual 10km Inis Iron Meáin fundraiser, which attracts international runners and walkers .

There’s lots of interaction between the islands, such as the all-island football tournament for Ireland’s offshore islands. I was surprised at the footballing skills, as I was expecting something from Father Ted .

This scholarship scheme must be one of Ireland’s best-kept secrets. I plan to start a degree in social science at Trinity College Dublin next September. College life will be completely different from my experience on Inis Meáin, but my time here has equipped me with independence, self-confidence and the ability to be versatile and adaptable in life.

The island scholarship scheme, funded by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, is open to students from first to sixth year. To apply, contact one of three Aran Islands’ secondary schools: Gairmscoile Éinne, Árainn, Co Galway; Coláiste Naomh Eoin, Inis Meáin, Co Galway; or Coláiste Ghobnait, Inis Oirr, Co Galway

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